Tag Archives: Bob Flanagan

Tribute by Bill Mohr to Bob Flanagan at Beyond Baroque

This video must have been shot at a memorial service for Bob Flanagan at Beyond Baroque, shortly after he died in 1996. The poem I read, “One Miracle,” was first published by Marvin Malone’s underappreciated magazine, WORMWOOD REVIEW (Vol. 36, number 2; issue 142). It subsequently was included in my collection of poems published by Brooks Roddan’s IF/SF publishing house, “BITTERSWEET KALEIDOSCOPE.” It was also translated into Spanish by Jose Luis Rico and appeared as “Un Milagor” in “Circulo de Poesia: Revista Electronica de Literatura” and in “PRUEBAS OCULTAS” (Bonobos Editores, 2015). “One Miracle” was also included as one of three poems in “WIDE AWAKE: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond,” edited by Suzanne Lummis (Pacific Coast Poetry Series: Beyond Baroque, Venice, 2015).

Bob Flanagan – On the 20th anniversary of his death

Photo (c) by Rod Bradley

Photo (c) by Rod Bradley

THE KID IS THE ULTIMATE MAN: Bob Flanagan (1952-1996) and Sheree Rose

Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Bob Flanagan, although this post happening to appear today is the result of pure accident. The photograph of Flanagan accompanying this post is from a set taken by Rod Bradley at a publication event for issue number 11 of Bachy magazine at Papa Bach Bookstore in the mid-1970s; I spotted the CD Bradley had given me with the photographs at my office last week and took another peek at them over the holiday weekend, at which point I decided to start work on a long overdue tribute to Bob Flanagan and his artistic collaborator, Sheree Rose. When I looked up Bob’s dates to get an exact bearing on his chronology, I found the anniversary of his death to be rapidly approaching, so I redoubled my efforts. It should be noted, by the way, that the title of this post is a reference to the words on the cover of a book in the lower left hand corner of the photograph.

Flanagan began reading his poems around Southern California beginning in the mid-1970s, when he was still in his early 20s. In point of fact, I attended a festival of poets that included Flanagan in what had to have been his first reading in any venue that got public attention whatsoever. The “festival” took place in an unfinished, multi-story office building somewhere near downtown Los Angeles. I suppose it would be possible to dig through my archives and find the name of the hapless organizer and the exact address, but this was not an event that merits much more citation than Flanagan’s appearance, which stood out because of the contrast between his earnestness and the abundance of clichés in his poems. Flanagan was not born with a natural flair for vivid imagery. I distinctly remember listening to him read at that festival and thinking to myself that he had as little talent as any young poet I had ever heard. The old truism that talent is mostly hard work is certainly demonstrated in Flanagan’s case, for it was due to his determination to become a good writer that he matured into one of my favorite poets. In addition to his willingness to work very hard at becoming a better writer, he also had the advantage of being a member of the Beyond Baroque workshop, where poets such as Jim Krusoe and Jack Grapes continued his education in poetry outside of the academy.

I published some of his poetry in Momentum magazine and was impressed enough by his first book, “The Kid Is the Man” (Bombshelter Press, 1978) to write a review of it. It was the first formal public notice that Flanagan’s writing received. “The Kid Is the Man” contained all of the poems that Flanagan had made famous within several coteries at work in Los Angeles back then. “Love Is Still Possible” and “The Bukowski Poem” remain two of the earliest instances of poems that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame for the Stand Up school, a point to which I will return in a moment. Nor did Flanagan cease to write poetry even as he increasingly began to focus on music, theater, and performance art as outlets for his creative impishness and considerable wit, not to mention his legendary masochism. When it came time to choose his poems for Poetry Loves Poetry (1985), the work was all from the period after his first book was published and included another stand-up classic, “Fear of Poetry.” He went on to publish several collections, including “The Slave Sonnets” and a superb collaboration with David Trinidad, “A Taste of Honey.”

Given all of this poetry by Flanagan and the degree of his visible presence through frequent readings in Los Angeles, it is astonishing to realize that he is absent from all three editions of “Stand Up Poetry,” the first of which appeared in 1990 as a project co-edited by Charles Harper Webb and Suzanne Lummis. I suppose one has to take on faith the sincerity of the editors when one reads in the first slim volume (84 pages) that the 22 poets appearing in the book are merely representative of the Stand Up poetry movement and are not intended to be seen as the essential members of its first wave. However, Flanagan does not appear in either of the subsequent volumes, either. In fact, Flanagan is also absent from “Grand Passion,” which was also co-edited by Webb and Lummis, and which appeared in 1994, while Flanagan was still alive.

I find Flanagan’s absence from this evolving series of anthologies to be nothing short of astonishing, especially since Flanagan had a generous selection of poems in my anthology, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” which appeared in 1985 and which contained the poems of Webb and Lummis, too. In other words, his work was right there in front of them. Now it’s true that by 1990 Flanagan was primarily known as a performance artist, but he was still active as a poet. In fact, Flanagan was one of the primary poets who ran the Beyond Baroque poetry workshop between 1985 and 1995. Despite the way that his notoriety as a “Super-Masochist” began to overshadow his poetry, I certainly regarded Flanagan as worthy of consideration as a working poet in the early 1990s; and when I asked him to be a guest on my poetry video show, “Put Your Ears On,” he did not hesitate to accept. It turned out to be one of my most successful shows. We had a monitor on stage with a video of David Trinidad reading his lines from A Taste of Honey that alternated with Bob reading his lines live in the studio. His wit was on full display: when I asked him if he ever considered moving to NYC, where he had been born, he responded that he “preferred his creature comforts, and New York is mostly creatures.”

In addition, his poems in “Poetry Loves Poetry” were among the very best one in that anthology. “Fear of Poetry” remains a classic example of a metapoem that should be studied by every young poet. It should also be mentioned that Flanagan’s prominence within the poetry community in the mid-1980s because his lover and artistic collaborator Sheree Rose was a very fine photographer. When I decided that full-page photographs of the poets should be included in “Poetry Loves Poetry,” it was Sheree Rose who drew the assignment of persuading several dozen poets to relax enough to let their private masks become somewhat visible in a public portrait. She did a superb job and I hope some day that Beyond Baroque can have a retrospective of her work.

Finally, to square the paradoxical circle of his absence, I would also note that Flanagan studied at California State University, Long Beach, where Gerald Locklin taught for 40 years. Locklin and his colleague Charles Stetler are the poets known for using the title of Edward Field’s book, Stand Up, Friend, with Me, as the basis for a moniker to describe a kind of poetry that became increasingly popular in Southern California in the years after the Beat scenes in Los Angeles and San Francisco began a period of diminishing returns. Both Locklin and Stetler are in the first volume of Stand Up Poetry, along with another CSULB professor, Eliot Fried, whose poetry I had also published in the first issue of Bachy magazine in 1972.

The line-up of poets in the first volume of “Stand Up Poetry” (Red Wind Books, 1990) is very impressive: Laurel Ann Bogen, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins, Wanda Coleman, Edward Field, Michael C. Ford, Elliot Fried, Manazar Gamboa, Jack Grapes, Eloise Klein Healy, Ron Koertge, Steve Kowit, Jim Krusoe, Gerald Locklin, Suzanne Lummis, Bill Mohr, Charles Stetler, Austin Straus, Charles Webb, and Ray Zepeda. There are also two poets named Ian Gregson and Viola Weinberg. That the poems of Bob Flanagan and Scott Wannberg should have been there in place of Gregson’s and Weinberg’s is obvious now.

The importance of Bob Flanagan’s writing and art and of his collaborations with Sheree Rose recently was recently confirmed by the acquisition of his archives by the University of Southern California. You can access information about that archive at:
http://one.usc.edu/bob-flanagan-and-sheree-rose-collection/

On the 20th anniversary of his death, I would urge those who are looking for material to analyze through the lens of disability theory or queer theory to consider visiting that archive and to get to work. In doing so, it would also be worth remembering that Flanagan is an exemplary Stand Up poet and one of the primary members of the original core group. Those of us who were here in the early and mid-1970s know the accuracy of that statement, even if editors who didn’t arrive in Los Angeles until the late 1970s prefer a version that might reflect a fear of being tainted by Flanagan’s transgressive art. In equally emphasizing his stature as a Stand Up poet, critics might also consider how his writing fits within the Confessional school of poetry, which is all too often viewed as a movement with no important contributors after 1980. How about someone taking on an article with a stark contrast: Sharon Olds versus Bob Flanagan. Now that would generate an incandescence worthy of the audacious risks that Flanagan took and lived to tell about, far longer – decades longer – than anyone ever suspected he would, even those of who feel very lucky to have heard him read his poetry or to offer up his body to the demons of pain. Suffering is not redemption, but it is hard to know what is worthy redeeming if one does not suffer to test those boundaries. Flanagan’s art and poetry offer us a chance to redraw our boundaries and set off anew.

Mike Kelley Retrospective

August 1, 2014

THE MIKE KELLEY RETROSPECTIVE

The one and only time I happened to see the late Mike Kelley was at Beyond Baroque in one of his first major public presentations. I was not as impressed with his performance as I was with Johanna Went, whose work was also being featured at BB around this period. The younger poets showing up at Beyond Baroque at the time, however, such as Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, as well as fiction writer Benjamin Weissman, were enthusiastic about Kelley’s flare for self-centered intensity. Kelley seemed to have the charisma of the undeterred: what other choice was available, his taciturn presence on the stage seemed to insist.

Kelley’s charisma, it turned out, derived in part from his desire to subvert some inner dichotomies that he knew he was not responsible for. If post-modernism denied the transparent culminations of any knowledge-oriented project, Kelley was not about to succumb to some easy road to absurdist consciousness. Flamboyantly concise and expansively precise, Kelley’s work exuded a commitment to a mission from which few return less damaged than at the start, and make no mistake about it: this society’s post-World War II ideologies ran ramshackle over Kelley’s youthful sensitivities. One piece in particular summed up the traumatic origins of Kelly’s angst. On a wall near the large scale model of his childhood’s institutional indoctrination sites, one could find posted a “Suspected Child Abuse Report,” which the following comments were registered: “Raised by Zombies / Brainwashed by a Cult / Take me back, please.” If the first two comments suggest a prickly revulsion akin to Bob Dylan’s line, “Is there a hole for me to get sick in?” the third comment reveals how difficult it is to escape from the black hole of one’s bleak childhood.

“Educational Complex” was one of the last pieces I encountered as I worked my way through the major retrospective of Kelly’s work at the Geffen Temporary Contemporary, and it remains one of the three or four pieces I would most want to see again. It vibrates in my memory like a massive omphalos of sanitized ideology in which all the personal responsibility for the imposition of egregiously repressive social control has been utterly effaced. No one needs to utter the platitude of “I take full responsibility” because those who benefit the most from this structural edifice have already made their victims the only ones who are permitted to make such a confession.

I wish I had the time to read a few essays on Kelley’s work before posting this entry, but almost immediately after Linda and I viewed this show, I received a call from the Los Angeles Review of Books wanting to know if I would write something about Joseph Hansen and gave me a two-week deadline. I agreed, and that more or less eliminated any chance to go into any more depth on Kelly. As I have thought about his show, though, I have found myself wanting to rearrange the order of the pieces. I would love to have encountered the following sequence: “Abused Child Report”; “Educational Complex”; “Kandor”; the video of Superman reading Plath’s The Bell Jar; “The Greatest Tragedy of President Clinton’s Administration”; and “Pay for Your Pleasure.”

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned L.A. poets who were among Kelley’s earliest admirers.  One I didn’t mention was Bob Flanagan, who went on to become a performer in one of Kelley’s pieces mid-way through this exhibit. As I think about it, in fact, I wonder if Bob Flanagan’s self-portrait as “super-masochist” might possibly have been part of the germination of the “Kandor” project in which Superman’s hometown undergoes a version of whimsical gentrification. I must admit that I was rather enchanted by the scale model that one had to climb a short staircase to view. It was a full of radiant crystals, about two dozen towers in all, on a circular platform. No figures were visible, as if the only life were taking place inside these cathode tubes of utter peacefulness, a kind of mineral chrysalis.

“The Greatest Tragedy of President Clinton’s Administration” proved to be a belated caustis manifesto of sexual rebellion. Kelley’s half-dozen paragraphs choreographed the rhetoric of health with scathing irony. His logic was seething with self-evident obviousness: don’t people see how they’ve been swindled out of their birthright of pleasure? Kelley’s argument moves with a lucid ferocity from health care to sexual health, in which his recommendation is that rock figures should become the sexual servants of those who disempower their own libidos by fixating on the paradigmatic success of others.

“Pay for Your Pleasure” deserved to have a more pungent dialectical rebuke. One also wonders if Kelley at any point ever paused and thought to himself, “Hmmm, all males. In what way does my work differ from the effigies of figures that decorate the upper walls of the Boston Public Library as the fundamental resources of knowledge in Western Civilization?”  I will confess that “Pay for Your Pleasure”  did catch me off –guard with the intensity of a sudden desire to appropriate this piece and to stage it in Texas. In point of fact, what would it have meant for Kelley to have purchased and installed one of George W. Bush’s portrait paintings as the terminal point of this prêt-a-porter philosophical tour.

The video in which Superman reads portion of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was easily one of the most tantalizing parts of the entire exhibit. I would love to be able to use this video in a classroom. It was one of those rare moments when a combination of well-known cultural figures is a perfect blend, and one wonders why no one thoughts of this before. Michael Garvey’s performance of Superman deserves a special commendation.

“Infinite Expansion” (1982, Broad Art Foundation), which Linda saw as having a visual logic of “contraction,” has a chiastic quality of zig-zag overflow, as if it were an image of a fountain of rippling temporality. It served as a rare moment of respite in Kelley’s retrospective. Perhaps I am misreading this piece, but for once Kelley might have found a way out of duplicity of social manipulation and achieved a glimpse at a logic that frees the spirit rather than demolishing it under the pretence of human progress.

Bob Flanagan’s Birthday Bash

Friday, December 27, 2013 — Bob Flanagan’s Birthday Bash

Last night an audience of about 40 people gathered at Beyond Baroque to celebrate the birthday of Bob Flanagan, poet, performance artist, and musician (1952-1996). Sheree Rose organized the event and introduced each presenter. George Drury Smith, the founder of Beyond Baroque, lead off by commenting that, in the 1980s, he had stopped attending events that honored people who had died. The AIDS crisis took too many of his friends for him to endure the extended mourning of public rituals, but Smith said that last night’s assembly helped him reevaluate his reluctance to participate in these kinds of tributes. In praising Flanagan for his consistent contributions as a workshop leader and a poetic presence in Beyond Baroque’s early days, Smith also reminded the audience of another important figure in the organization’s survival, Alexandra Garrett, who died 20 years ago this coming New Year’s Eve. Smith’s opening remarks were followed by readings of Bob’s poems by Harry Northup, Jim Cushing, Michael C. Ford, Jim Krusoe, myself, and S.A. Griffin, after which Jack Skelley performed a song (“It’s Fun to Be Dead”) that Bob and he had written while they were bandmates in a group called “Planet of Toys.” Sheree capped the evening off by reading a letter from a young gay man in England who also suffers from cystic fibrosis and has found in Bob’s life and art a way to give meaning to his indefatigable suffering. Sheree also screened a slide show of Bob’s performance as well as a portion of a video of one of his last readings. It was a bit odd to have so many male presenters, even though at least a third of the audience was female.

The evening once again raised for me the question of Bob’s inexplicable absence from any of the anthologies that have organized themselves around the notion of “Stand Up” poetry. Several of the poems read at last night’s event generated sustained laughter from the audience. I was surprised, in fact, at how funny the poems still were. “Fear of Poetry,” for instance, which I read from the POETRY LOVES POETRY anthology, required me to improvise at least three unanticipated pauses in the performance so as the let the laughter play out. Flanagan’s poems represent some of the most successful examples of “Stand Up” poetry in the movement’s earliest days. Perhaps the singular blend of eros and thanatos that permeates Bob’s writing made his poetry unwelcome in the milieu of middle-class aspirations that underlie “stand up” ‘s editorial preferences.

Beyond Baroque’s back yard featured one of the best parts of the evening, an exhibition of “Bobaloon,” a twenty-foot tall inflatable figure of Bob with a fiercely erect cock, pierced with the full regalia of priapic masochism. I believe it was Richard Howard who noted in an essay on the poetry of Edward Field that “Stand Up, Friend, with Me (the title of one of Field’s books, which lent itself out to the movement’s name) is a joke on the arousal of the phallus. Bob’s stand-up figure in the back yard served to remind us that any anthology that would title itself “Seriously Funny” seriously needs its editors to start reading up on those who got it all started.